Monthly Archives: May 2011

“What Happened to Downtime?” or the Affordances of Woolgathering

What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking & Sacred Space :: Articles :: The 99 Percent.

Value the creative pause”. These are moments of scheduled aloneness and a time to woolgather uninterrupted over big questions.

Sacred niches where creative pauses can live are becoming extinct. Who loses? Our imaginations will pay a scary toll for giving up sacred spaces. Then why do we sacrifice this interior life? First, we are plagued by fear when we do and that is why it is nothing new that we have always sought distraction. Connection trumps anxiety. Connection is a Maslovian need. According to the author,”It is now possible to always feel loved and cared for, thanks to the efficiency of our “comment walls” on Facebook and seamless connection with everyone we’ve ever known.” Belsky calls this rejection of downtime “insecurity work”.

The solution is a revision of C.S. Forster’s dictum to stay connected, “Always connect, but also re-connect and reclaim your own sacred spaces. Belsky makes five concrete suggestions to renew our deep thinking landscape or what the poet G. M. Hopkins called the in-scape

1. We need to create new “rituals for unplugging”.
 The Sabbath Manifesto movement is a community of practice that advocates tithing a day to the god of disconnection.

2. We need time to think deeply. Belsky advises that we “carve out a 1-2 hour block every day for taking a walk or grabbing a cup of coffee and just ponder some of those bigger things.”

3. Fifteen minutes to meditate and twenty minutes to nap.

4. Invest in your own awareness. Taking a page from the mindfulness movement we need to acknowledge that connection distracts us from feeling. Admittedly, these feelings are ones we do not want to ‘invest’ in. Anxiety and insecurity are part of the inner landscape and awareness of them might be the first step toward mending them.

5. Protect the state of no-intent. The relentless pursuit of connection leads us away from the slacking that more often than not leads to the odd re-wirings and re-firings of neurons that ultimately lead to new stuff. An apt word for this might be the old expression “woolgathering” The OED defines ˈwool-ˌgathering’ as “the action of gathering fragments of wool torn from sheep by bushes.” Figuratively, it is the embodiment of a mind engaged in this state of no or very low intent.

What draws me to this article so powerfully is the realization that I while I have contributed to this headlong crash into distraction I can also hasten my students toward the brambles to gather wool and an occasional blackberry and a chigger or tick, too. Technology knits us together in ways more thorough than even imagined in John Stuart Mills’ panopticon, but (and I know I am mixing my metaphors here) its keen edge just as surely cuts us off from primordial and profound inner connections. Therefore, my new duty is to control this inner Babbitt and cease this blind optimistic boosterism of all tech that connects. It has a dark side. It represses just as sure as it uplifts. It needs to be put in its place. That is my duty, too. I need to show my learners, students and teachers alike, how to gather wool.

To that end here are some of my own ideas. I hope you will add to them here or drop me a letter at Terry Elliott, Blue Mailbox, 42765. Don’t worry it will get there.

1. Have lunch with students.

2. Declare one school day a tech Sabbath.

3. Teach students cursive or calligraphy.

4. Hand write postcards and thank you’s.

5. Make “no net” assignments that only rely on personal reflection and deep thinking.

6. Demand quiet and conspicuous woolgathering as a legitimate part of class. There must be no intent to this, but if some interesting carp surfaces, then let it be a moment of both personal and community discovery.

7. Breathe with students and remind them to breathe.

8. Ask what it was like to live without the net.

9. Imagine and re-imagine what we have seen, felt, heard, spoken, thought, and experienced. View with our mind’s eye and check out our own inscapes.

10. Re-consider ‘slacker culture’ and ‘idleness’.


Poverty: Is there an app for that?

“Development is the gradual emergence of a problem-solving system.”

via Poverty: Is there an app for that?.

If you substitute “learning” for “development” , then you have one of the most profound and simple definitions for what it is that teachers must become.

The authors are speaking from an NGO’s stance and a long term one at that.  So much failure in ‘developing’ countries has been the result of  what has been described as the ‘carpenter’s dilemma’–every problem looks like a nail.  And the hammer, while tres handy, cannot cement a foundation or glaze a window.

Kentaro Toyamo, a UC Berkeley ICT development expert, critiques this single minded strategy this way according to the author Tate Watkins,

Anyone imagining that a day or two of hacking will produce solutions to development problems, even in some small part, is either a technologist drunk on her own self-image who believes that she’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge with technology, or a World Bank officer drunk on his own self-image who believes that he’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge by motivating some technologists. In any case, it seems clear they are the kind of folks who don’t learn from history.

Every educator must confront the similarity of the problem in school settings and ask themselves wherever they are, “What am I doing to encourage the gradual growth of an emergent system that permits and promotes problem solving?”

The fact is that most of us are not doing much most of the time, especially edtech pedagogues, to humbly acknowledge its limits.  That is called hubris.  Hubris brought us the BP Oil Spill, the Iraq War, credit default swaps, and apparently the modern classroom.

Just as there is no app for poverty there can be no app for the learning that needs to emerge wherever it is needed.  I am appalled every time I reflect on the grimy wisdom of this video from a 2007 speech by Dr. Richard Elmore that I think supports what Kentaro and Watkins so simply and elegantly assert: it’s the default culture, stupid.


And the failure of the default culture is just as devastating in the first world as it is in the third.  And our hubris is to assert that there is an app for the failure of that default culture.  Elmore’s solution to this is a leap of faith in the redemptive power of our children and our communities, not small technology wallpaper,

I wonder, finally, what would happen if we simply opened the doors and let the students go; if we let them walk out of the dim light of the overhead projector into the sunlight; if we let them decide how, or whether, to engage this monolith? Would it be so terrible? Could it be worse than what they are currently experiencing? Would adults look at young people differently if they had to confront their children on the street, rather than locking them away in institutions? Would it force us to say more explicitly what a humane and healthy learning environment might look like? Should discussions of the future of school reform be less about the pet ideas of professional reformers and more about what we’re doing to young people in the institution called school?

Reminds me of the Simpson’s episode (s02 e09) where Marge succeeds in banning “Itchy and Scratchy” from television. At the end of the episode all of the children pour into the  streets to play to the strains of Beethoven’s “Pastoral”–a goosebump moment of the strangest order.  But isn’t that what Elmore is asserting–get out of the kids’ way and be ready to help them when they ask for it, but you better be damned sure to help when they ask you.

When it comes down to it we have made an assumption that is at heart wrong and destructive:  students learn only because they are taught.  That’s it.  That’s where we went off the rails.  An assumption like that becomes an institutional imperative over time (perhaps the imperative assumption).  After that we paint and wallpaper over the foundational cracks that inevitably form as the ground shifts.  Make no mistake.  The ground has shifted.  We teach in order to bring forth, to educe, from a learner an emergent intelligence that can eventually teach him or herself, can teach others, and can solve his or her own problems.  That is an assumption and a vision I can live with for the rest of my life.





TagCrowd: make your own tag cloud from any text

TagCrowd: make your own tag cloud from any text.


created at

This tag cloud was generated with TagCrowd from a job description for Senior Instructional Designer at Western Kentucky University. I love how a simple visualization (in this case a ‘snapshot’ of the frequency of words in the text) can reveal and represent. This cloud represents what the university is looking for in an upper level instructional designer for their online division. It represents an accepted schema for broadcasting a need. Oftentimes it represents a long wish list that an employer might want to get when it hires someone. That ‘ordinary’ level of understanding is clear to most folks as they begin to respond with cover letters and resumes, but it seems to me that the tag cloud reveals a meta-level of information as well that is subject to larger and more varied explanation.

For example, the most frequent (and hence, the largest font size) word is ‘instructional’. Yes, this is expected, but the visual also drives home that the position is an instrumental. They want someone who has practice in instruction. For example, it might seem like I would not be a true fit because I do not have a specific degree in instructional design, but I think that the data reveals that what they really want is someone who has been an instructor